Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
[Hold up a heavy, moth-eaten, Victorian Bible]. I reckon that this is what many, if not most, people think of when they think of the Bible – if they think of the Bible at all. They tend to think of something heavy, forbidding, old-fashioned, falling part at the seams and probably judgemental – one long wagging of the divine finger.
And so they tend to think of the Christian God as some sour-faced kill-joy who can’t abide people having the temerity to actually enjoy themselves even occasionally.
Which is very, very sad, because that simply isn’t what God is like. And it’s not what the Bible is really like either. I like to think of the Bible as a kind of love-song from God to the human race. Even more fundamentally it’s God’s love-song to the whole of creation. It’s one long ‘yes’ to existence, to our existence.
Now, of course, you don’t need to be gifted with some exceptional degree of insight to spot that the relationship between God and human beings doesn’t always run smoothly in the Bible. In its pages God is sometimes portrayed as being displeased and angry.
There are times when a definitive rupture seems imminent but the rupture never becomes total or permanent. God always comes back for more, however badly we have let ourselves down. That’s important to remember: God always comes back for more.
For all those periods of discord, the Bible always remains a love-song. There is never a moment when God ceases to love us, whatever trials and tribulations are happening between us human beings, and between us and God.
But, besides being a love-song, the Bible is also an invitation. Isaiah uses the image of an invitation to a banquet. As our first reading says:
‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food’.
God wants our well-being. The image of the banquet is one that recurs repeatedly in the Bible. Jesus uses it repeatedly as a pointer to what happens in the kingdom of God. But we shouldn’t take it too literally. The banquet is an image for something else, an image for a relationship.
Amazingly enough, we small and puny creatures are all invited to have a loving and intimate relationship with the infinite and eternal God. That is the goal and fulfilment of our existence. God isn’t some oriental despot before whom we are called to prostrate ourselves lest he mete out some fearful punishment. He desires to have with us a relationship of mutual love.
As I see it, one of the great truths of the Christian faith is that God is conceived of as being personal rather than impersonal. God is a person.
It doesn’t mean that God is a person in exactly the same sense that you and I are persons. Obviously not. It seems to me that a person is an entity that is capable of love. That for me is the very definition of what constitutes a person. The impersonal just isn’t capable of love. If God therefore is the very essence of love, as the Bible teaches, he must be a person.
So where does this leave the Bible? Ultimately, and I hope this doesn’t shock you, the Bible ceases to be of paramount importance. The relationship we form with God takes over. The relationship becomes paramount.
Years ago I used to go to various shows put on by the BBC in front of a live audience. They were mainly comedies. If you know the drill, it’s quite easy to get tickets. These shows were invariably preceded by someone trying to warm up the audience, trying to get them into ‘laughter mode’. It was preparing them to play their part in what was to come.
Now, I’m not sure it’s a great analogy, but maybe the Bible is something like that. It’s trying to prepare our hearts for the relationship to come that we are all capable of having with the God of love.
To extract an analogy from the Bible itself, it’s a bit like John the Baptist and Jesus. John prepares the way for Jesus. But when Jesus arrives on the scene, John fades into the background. As John himself says: ‘he [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.’
A relationship with him is the potential experience that God holds out to us. The point is this: it’s our relationship with God that is the really important thing. The Bible is an important means to help us on the journey, but it’s not the destination.
Now that, you might say, is what would happen in a kind of tidy, ideal world. As the building goes up, the scaffolding can finally be dispensed with. The problem is that putting up the building can sometimes be a slow and, frankly, incompetent business on our part.
So I’m not suggesting that we can just throw the Bible out. Far from it.
I have the distinct impression that, from a spiritual point of view, we human beings often think that we can run before we can walk. We tend to imagine that we are further along the spiritual road than we actually are. We can get to thinking that we have transcended the need for the support and guidance the Bible can give us.
And even if we actually are pretty well advanced on the spiritual path, I reckon we need the check and discipline of the Bible to keep us from straying.
There are, I assume, some deeply spiritual Christians who can do without the Bible, but I would estimate that they are almost literally one in a million.
For the rest of us, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. As the 2nd letter to Timothy says: ‘all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work’.
Very few of us outgrow the Bible. And all of us, the spiritually advanced and the not so spiritually advanced, should always remember that its words are a love-song, inspired by love in order to inspire love in us.